16-hour marathon talks end in fragile peace deal
The peace talks between the leaders of Russia, Germany, Ukraine and Belarus met in Minsk to discuss a solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The talks lasted over 15 hours and ended with a shaky ceasefire deal tht touches upon the main problems of regulating the eastern part of Ukraine. At the same time, the agreement omits a number of key points, in particular the status of Donbass and the guarantee of ceasefire from both sides. Because of this experts believe that this won’t be the last peace deal to be negotiated.
“Not the best night I’ve ever had”
The meeting of the 4 national leaders was held in an unprecedented format which can only be compared with the type of “talks” held in pre-war times. 15 hours without sleep. The negotiations started on Wednesday evening and ended only by Thursday afternoon. How the national leaders were able to handle such emotional and physical tension is a different story. From time to time one of them would leave the meeting for several minutes.
“This is not the best night I’ve ever had in my life,” commented President Vladimir Putin after the negotiations were over.
The journalists covering the summit would fall asleep half-sitting or half-lying on the floor. After waiting for many hours one of the Russian journalists started feeling sick. Doctors had to be called in.
The gracious host of the meeting, Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko tried to lighten the situation: “Everybody has been fed and given everything necessary. You saw for yourself how we organized the event,” he quipped. “At the table we served all the products that Belarus and Russia produce. Fried eggs, cheese and milk products were served. Not to mention the several buckets of coffee which were also consumed,” he added.
While the meeting continued many tried to predict the outcome of it. Opinions varied greatly, from predictions gushing with optimism to those filled with gloom and doom. At first, it seemed as though the mere fact of a summit taking place was a guarantee of success. Why would four national leaders meet up in Minsk for nothing. Sergei Lavrov’s words seemed to be saying the same thing. “The negotiations aren’t going well, they’re going super,”. The talks continued on and on with no results and tensions rising.
In the morning it turned out that there will be no joint press conference of Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko because the representatives of DPR and LPR refused to sign the document they were given. “There is no good news yet,” said Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, calling Russian terms and conditions “unacceptable”.
“The statements made by Plotnitsky and Zakharchenko about their disaproval of the plan is a kind of theatrical gesture,” stated Gazeta.ru, a news source with close ties to Moscow politics concerning Ukraine. “Russian wants to get rid of an “offender” image and take on the role of a mediator between the feuding parties. With this task in mind the “Normandy format” was held parallel to the Contact Group meeting. In this way the leaders of Russia, France, Germany and the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR ended up in Minsk at the same time.”
Another half hour of talks and it finally become clear that there was an agreement established after all, not between the participants of the Normandy format, but between the participants of the Contact Group. The group consisted of Ukraine’s representative, former president Leonid Kuchma, as well as representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Heidi Tagliavini, Russian ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov and leaders of the self-proclaimed Republics Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky whose formal status was not indicated in the document unlike the others.
The war is to end on Sunday
The current agreement is visibly more thorough than the one reached last September in Minsk, but the difference is not that big. Perhaps the most important part of the agreement is the new constitution which Ukraine has to enact by the end of 2015. A key point in it will be decentralization (taking into consideration the specifics of separate regions of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts in accordance with representatives of these areas) and the adoption of legislation on the separatist regions’ special status.
Moreover, the constitutional reform is also directly linked with the Russia-Ukraine border once again going under the control of Ukraine. This is to happen by the end of the year if the reform will be carried out.
There is another fundamental question not yet answered – where is the dividing line to be drawn between the two warring parties? Kiev insisted on setting the border which was established last September, the separatists demanded that the existing borders created after the January advance be kept. As a result, a decision was made for Ukrainian troops to withdraw heavy artillery from the de facto frontline and for the rebel troops to withdraw from the September frontline according to last year’s Minsk agreement. But it is not entirely clear who will take control of the buffer zone.
The most mysterious part of the document is the disarmament of “illegal groups”. It is not entirely clear how and according to what legislation groups will be distinguished as legal or illegal. Apparently, this is for “internal use” and will give both Kiev and the DPR’s and LPR’s authorities grounds to disarm uncontrolled groups which have been causing problems for a while.
The ceasrefire will take effect on Sunday, February 15.
Experts can’t give definite assessment of the document which was accepted on Thursday. “All the responsibilities taken on by the national leaders will be carried out by both sides. The current agreement is more thorough and concrete than the previous one. If President Petro Poroshenko decides not to follow through, he will become politically bankrupt in the eyes of Europe. I also think that President Vladimir Putin can influence the leaders of DPR and LPR and make them fulfill the terms and conditions in the Minsk agreement,” stated Igor Morozov, member of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs.
A different opinion was expressed by Igor Zevelev, an expert in the field of international security: “Note the fact that the agreement was signed by the Contact Group and not by the national leaders, who only voiced their support. This is not nearly enough. It is too early to talk about the conflict even becoming a frozen one. From previous experience it is clear that a ceasefire agreement will be kept if there are rigid terms for long-term control.”
Vladimir Fesenko, the head of the Center for Political Analysis “Penta” has the same opinion. “The new point in the agreement about a constitutional reform and giving special status to some parts of the separatist regions has no fundamental differences from the previous agreement, except for the words “constitutional reform”. Decentralization does not entail a separate constitutional status for the regions and the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (parliament) will not vote for a special status or for the federalization of Donbass. The main problem is whether the sides will comply with the document, will the ceasefire really end and will heavy artillery be withdrawn. The first peace deal was deemed as “bad” and it was broken off almost immediately. I’m afraid a ceasefire will not come soon.”
Vladimir Fesenko’s skepticism is backed by the difficult situation in the Debaltsevo cauldron where Ukranian troops are trying to release those troops who are in the pocket. According to Fesenko giving up the troops in Debaltsevo means giving up everything. “If the fight for Debaltsevo continues on the 14th and the 15th, there is a risk of the peace agreement being abandoned. The peace deal doesn’t include any serious control mechanisms over the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy artillery. Last year the buffer zone was occupied by separatists and if the same thing happens again the peace deal will fail,” said Fesenko.
Forgot about the peacekeepers
The new Minsk peace deal (besides not having clear information about territorial status) has no mention of sending in peacekeepers. There were only vague statements about OSCE’s representative being present.
Before the meeting, representative of Moscow very carefully and, at the same time, very persistently talked about sending in peacekeepers. The fact that no part of the peace deal mentions peacekeepers is probably Petro Poroshenko’s biggest “win” in the agreement. If they were to be sent to the war-struck regions the eastern territories would be separated from the rest of Ukraine for an uncertain period of time.
This diplomatic victory by Poroshenko gives Ukraine the opportunity to resume the armed conflict at any moment.
“For now we need a specific ceasefire plan instead of just intentions,” said Pavel Salin, director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University . “During the previous peace talks in Minsk there were intentions of initiating a ceasefire but no concrete mechanism was created. This is the reason why we have to start over now. The simplest way to do this is to create a buffer zone under the control of the international contingent. Those wishing to shoot at the other side will also have to shoot at the international contingent,” added Pavel Salin.
The meeting was the most disappointing for President Petro Poroshenko as he won’t be able to present the results of the meeting as his own achievement to the increasingly polarized Ukrainian society.
Summing it up, Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) said that with the peace deal in place the difficult process to achieving peace only begins.
“Both the sides felt that the only alternative to peace is an unpredictable escalation of war. That is why peace talks were held. Despite this, all the contradictions regarding status, border control, the buffer zone remain. It will take some time before these problems can be solved. There is a long road ahead; each point of the peace deal has to be agreed upon. The situation will change and so will the approach of the opposing sides to the peace deal.”
“Reaching an agreement during peace talks in Minsk is an important step to stopping the violence,” says Urmas Paet, a member of the European parliament and the previous Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia. “But it is also important that the peace talks continue as the reasons of the conflict are fundamental and can influence the future of Ukraine,” added Urmas Paet.
Meanwhile, Vadim Karasev, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of Global Strategies considers that some progress was made during the meeting, but it is too early to tell if this can lead to a global breakthrough. “The implementation of the terms and conditions is left to the will and commitment of the parties to find a mutual acceptable solution,” said Vadim Karasaev.
According to the expert’s opinion the main reason for the compromise is to win time and come up with a maneuver. Most importantly there was no solution reached about the status of DPR and LPR.
In the event of federalization the self-proclaimed Republic will gain a confederal status. “Ukraine will not be satisfied in a situation where economic costs of these regions are the responsibility of the Kiev government while the regions are politically dependant on Russia.”
As for Russia, its biggest concern for the time being is sanctions.
Text and photos from gazeta.ru